Journalist wins damages after court rules customs officers were wrong to seize files

By Emil Weber

Russian customs officers violated a journalist’s right to a private life when they seized and copied files and photos from his laptop without sufficient justification, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) decided on 13 February 2018.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg (photo: Nicoleon, Cour européenne des droits de l'homme, CC BY-SA 4.0) The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg (photo: Nicoleon, Cour européenne des droits de l'homme, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The top human rights court ruled that Russian law and practice provides only limited safeguards in relation to the right of the executive to interfere in private life, namely the article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Journalist Yuriy Nikolayevich Ivashchenko, a correspondent of, had travelled in August 2009 to Abkhazia (Georgia) to prepare a report with photographs.

On his way back the Russian customs officer on duty at the checkpoint copied a large amount of data from his laptop, including personal correspondence.

(Editor’s note: This was exactly one year after the Russian invasion of the self-proclaimed independent states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia).

The files and photos were submitted to two expert organisations to evaluate whether or not they contained “extremist material”, before being returned to Mr. Ivashchenko in November 2011. The second expert organisation apparently concluded that they contained no “extremist material”, but in the meantime Mr. Ivashchenko was interviewed and asked by the authorities about his political views, professional and civic activities. However, no criminal or court proceeding was initiated against him in relation to the data.

"Customs officers authorised to take samples"

Mr. Ivashchenko himself applied for judicial review concerning “the adverse acts and actions of the customs officials”. The Prikubanskiy District Court of Krasnodar dismissed it in 2010; it said the “customs authorities [were] authorised to take samples of goods for examination [...] in compliance with Presidential Decree no. 310 on combating fascism and political extremism”. Later the regional court in Krasnodar upheld the decision.

The ECtHR now says that the actions of the Russian authorities “went beyond what could be perceived as procedures that were ‘routine’, relatively non-invasive and for which consent was usually given”.

“By submitting his effects (belongings) to customs controls a person does not automatically and in all instances waive or otherwise forego the right to respect for his or her ‘private life’ or […] ‘correspondence’”, its judgement reads.

The ECtHR said that it did not appear that “the comprehensive measure used in the present case” was necessarily based on some reasonable suspicion caused by prior behaviour. It was further not convinced that the fact that a person is returning from a “disputed area constituted in itself a sufficient basis for […] extensive examination and copying of his electronic data”.

“In the Court’s view […], the safeguards provided by Russian law have not been demonstrated as constituting an adequate framework for the wide powers afforded to the executive which should offer individuals adequate protection against arbitrary interference”, the judgement read.

The court said that domestic authorities were not required to give sufficient reasons for their interference. “It was merely assumed that the identification of possible ‘extremist material’ was required by the 1995 Presidential decree. It was not considered relevant, at any stage and in any manner, that the applicant was carrying journalistic material”.

The ECtHR unanimously ruled that there was a violation of the right to private life and awarded Mr. Ivashchenko 4,700 Euros in damages and proceedings costs.

Case of Ivashchenko v. Russia, application no. 61064/10. 13 February 2018



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